Considerable sensation has been evoked in the towns of Topsham, Lympstone, Exmouth, Teignmouth, and Dawlish, in the south of Devon, in consequence of the discovery of a vast number of foot tracks of a most strange and mysterious description. The superstitious go so far as to believe that they are the marks of Satan himself; and that great excitement has been produced among all classes may be judged from the fact that the subject has been descanted on from the pulpit.
The Times, Feburary 16, 1855
The night of February 7 became the morning of February 8, 1855. In Topsham, England, a baker noticed some unidentified tracks near his shop. Snowfall had ended around midnight; the tracks must have been made after that time. He dismissed them until he later heard from neighbours stories of the length of the trail. As word spread, it became apparent that the unidentified tracks wound their way a distance of more than one hundred miles, over buildings and apparently through walls, across a river (occasionally doubling back on themselves) until they finally meandered into Totnes, where, allegedly, they came to a dead stop. The intrepid and the curious followed. The individual footprints were allegedly u-shaped, suggestive of cloven hooves and, according to many witnesses, clearly made by a bipedal creature. Each print was about four inches long and a little over two inches wide. They footsteps fell eight inches apart.
Many people held the opinion that the tracks represented the trail of one or more animals which had been imaginatively combined into a single trail by witnesses. Sir Richard Owen wrote a letter to the The Times in which he suggested the tracks had been made by badgers, though he himself had not examined the trail. A similarity between the prints and those of a kangaroo were noted, though one rarely finds kangaroos in Great Britain, and a private menagerie in Sidmouth which might have provided one reported no missing animals. The notion that one might have escaped, hopped about for the considerable distance in question, and then returned seems rather far-fetched. Others suspected a hoax. Writer Geoffrey Household, best known for his thriller novels, claims that the Devonport Dockyard accidentally released an "experimental balloon" which carried two shackles on the end of ropes. These trailed the balloon, and left what people believed to be footprints. Househould cites as his source the descendant of someone who worked at the dockyard, and who further claims that those responsible kept quiet because they feared the public response. It's an interesting hypothesis, but one cannot easily see how this device would have made such a trail, especially against the night's prevailing winds.
Inevitably, some suggested that Old Nick had visited England that night, leaving the devilish trail of cloven prints.
As with any story containing a whiff of the paranormal, the cryptozoological, or the conspiratorial, finding consistent and reliable information proves a challenge. The English newspapers only picked up the story after days had passed; the first full account did not appear until February 16. The delay means, of course, that the story had time to acquire elaborations. One report claimed that dogs in Dawlish refused to follow the tracks and backed away, fearful. And imaginative reconstruction could well play a part in turning unconnected or mundane footprints into a demonic trail.
With the passage of more than a century, claims have only grown more bizarre; later stories recount footprints which walked up the sides of walls, a detail apparently missed at the time. The entertaining but sloppily-researched Strange Stories, Amazing Facts1, makes the chilly winter night "the coldest in living memory" and gives convincing details of the frigid weather's effects-- but no sources. Frank Edwards' equally suspect Stranger than Science links the tracks to the Canvey Island Monster corpses, a mystery from a century later, but Edwards appears to be the only source for that particular story, and wild speculation alone connects the alleged unidentified corpses of 1954 with the Devon footprints.2
History and, in particular, its more bizarre footnotes, provide many stories like this one. Someone may have hoaxed people with a Scooby-esque fake sea serpent in 1855, or the report of the celebrated hoax may be itself a hoax. A woman may have been sexually assaulted by an alien glass tube in the Tower of London in 1817, or someone might be telling a very strange campfire story. The CIA may still be running their mind-control experiments, or their past atrocities may make them susceptible to every conspiracy theorist seeking a plausible villain.
And something really strange may have wandered through Devon, England, in 1855-- or people may just need stories like this to maintain their sense of wonder.
1.Among other errors, this book twice reports the events of short stories as fact.
2.If anyone knows of a source for the Canvey Island Monsters that does not merely recapitulate Stranger than Science, please let me know.
"Devil's Footprints." http://www.qsl.net/w5www/devilsfootprints.html
"Devil's Footprints." Altered Dimensions. http://www.spartechsoftware.com/dimensions/creatures/DevilsFootprints.htm
"Devil's Footprints." Mysterious Britain. http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/fortean/devils_foot.html
Frank Edwards. Stranger than Science (1959). New York: Bantam Books, 1973.
Garth Haslam. "The Devil's Footprints." Anomolies. http://anomalyinfo.com/articles/sa00003.shtml
Geoffrey Household, ed. The Devil's Footprints : The Great Devon Mystery as it was Reported in the Newspapers of 1855. Exeter: Devon Books, 1985.
Editors of the Reader's Digest. Strange Stories, Amazing Facts. Pleasantville, New York, 1976.